Monday, February 23, 2015

The Ministry of Temptations

Sermon for Lent 1B
Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

Happy Lent!
Uh . . . dreadful Lent?
In the past several years, I have been fairly vocal in my distaste for Lent. I think that I have finally found out my problem with it, which means basically that I am in a new season of considering Lent for the first time, all over again.
Part of my problem, I suppose, is that the common, popular notions of what Lent does, don’t do it for me. For example, Lent is basically a time for people to do little self-improvement projects: 40 bags of clutter in 40 days, No sugar for 40 days, no coffee for 40 days; all of these to somehow build a habit that they have been meaning to get to; which is fine, really, though I have never met a person who was made better by not having coffee. Indeed the entire human race is made at least tolerable with coffee.
I am not against building good healthy habits. But it seems to me that self-help is not what Lent is about.

Some people suppose that Lent is about suffering. This I simply don’t get. Self-imposed suffering is not for me. Suffering has a role in the Christian life though; suffering for us means an opportunity to more fully grow into our humanity and discipleship to Jesus Christ in the direct action of alleviating suffering, not in fabricating it for ourselves for some kind of project. Besides, if you decide to stop eating sugar are you suffering? Because that, to me looks like the healthiest thing you could do for yourself.
So if Lent is not all about self-improvement and self-imposed suffering, what is it?

Well, it seems to me that Christianity is about delving ever more deeply into reality. Reality, so we Christians say, is all about what happened at Easter. We say that the world was fundamentally changed at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Resurrection means that death, as we knew it, was destroyed, hell was forever unlocked and blown open, and the divine life of God was open to all. This is reality. We call it the Paschal mystery, it just an old Greek word for Easter. We live in a Paschal reality.
So then Lent, like all of the Christian seasons, should add to our expanding view of this reality? It’s funny because Lent, like Advent is a preparatory season. Lent, like Advent, is meant to get us ready for what comes next.
Lent then gets us ready to encounter this new Easter reality by putting us in touch with what is at stake. Having a good Lent shows us what we are being saved from and what we are being saved for. This is why this season is so focused on repentance from sin and bodily suffering, because what is at stake is our separation from God and our very bodies. And being the milquetoast Christians we can be sometimes, we translate this fundamental reality of sin and body and make it about de-cluttering and having tea instead of coffee.

Ok, I need you to stay with me, because, as it turns out these little projects and suffering may actually serve a purpose. Let’s see what the readings have to say to all of this today.
First, I’d like to draw your attention to the first chapter of Mark, today’s gospel reading, again! We have heard this reading three times in the lectionary since December. Once again we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the desert. Mark is characteristically brief, we don’t get the story of exactly what those temptations were, and the Church would add those stories a generation later. But it is worth noting that it is the Spirit that drives Jesus into the desert. It is the Spirit that sets up the conditions for the temptations. In this story we learn that, since we are Christians, even God gets tempted.
Which leads us to the Genesis reading.
It is the familiar story of Noah. The rains have come and gone, which, I will remind you that God brought because of the violence of humanity. Today’s reading picks up in the part of the myth, which is quite likely fiction, but certainly true in the deepest sense, and ultimately descriptive of God, where God is establishing his first covenant with humanity. Several more covenants will follow with Abraham, Moses, and most intimately in Jesus Christ. But today we get the first covenant, God’s promise to be with us. God says, “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."
In this story we see that the character of God needs reminding not to destroy all flesh. God is trying to build a habit I guess because he sets up an external cue, the rainbow, to interrupt the old way of being. God, it seems, is giving up violence for Lent.
God, by the way, is the only personality that can justifiably use violence, being the creator and all. But here we see that God knows that he will be tempted to do violence, so the cue of the rainbow is established to interrupt the temptation.

It seems, as we read these stories today, that temptation has a ministry. Each temptation we have is a signal to our spirits and our bodies to consider an area that needs attention and growth. Have you considered the ministry of your temptations?
God knew that he would be tempted to engage in violence, likely because he knew that violence could not be cured by more violence. The temptation to do violence needed to be countered by the covenant and the rainbow reminder of that covenant.
There is a ministry to your temptations. They point out what needs light and attention. Think this through: we are not tempted by things that don’t matter to us.
Here is a controversial statement: I simply do not care about Duke or North Carolina basketball. It’s nothing personal, but I just didn’t get that college basketball fanatic gene. It doesn’t matter to me, I appreciate the beauty of a well-played game of basketball, but as to who wins, I don’t care. Therefore, I am not tempted to trash-talk Carolina or Duke, spelled D. O. O. K. apparently. But for some of you, especially the ones who I know on Facebook, to trash the other team and those associated with that team, the temptation is strong. This is a fairly innocuous example, but you can see that you are only tempted by the things that need attention. This is the ministry of temptations.
What are you tempted by, what needs work? Is it your knee-jerk reactions, is it that you want to rescue everyone, is it that you eat to take the pain away? What is your temptation trying to show you?
Too many of us engage our temptations by attacking them without going deeper.
Temptations are a finger pointing to a deeper problem, and most of us do Lent by staring at the pointing-finger and we spend no time bravely engaging what the temptation is trying to point to.
We probably avoid going deeper for one main reason: we think that if we could just get our act together, if I cut the sugar, if I stopped swearing so much; then I would be more lovable, I’d be worthy of affection and respect. Going deeper than the mere sugar means to engage that feeling even more strongly, that’s scary. But know this, to bravely go deeper, to be vulnerable and honest, is also to begin to see that you are loved, you are lovable. It’s paradoxical, but the act of going deep, of being scared, is precisely what Lent is about: about getting in touch, bravely, with what God was most interested in saving through Easter.
Observe a good Lent. Get in touch with what is at stake in Easter: which is your separation from God and your very existence, in your body; your sin and your body. Know that Lent is here for you to more and more deeply come to know what God did with Easter.
Watch those temptations, really watch them, what are they pointing to? Instead of shamefully trying to cover and obliterate your temptations why not think of them as being given by the Holy Spirit as something that needs attention, prayer, work, kindness, healing, love.
Keep those little self-improvement projects, but know that they are pointing to something deeper, something that yearns be loved and healed. But know further that God already loves your insecurities, your foibles, and is ready through your bravery to transform them, or not, as is his will.
Keep a good Lent, be patient with the strange ministry of your temptations, knowing that Lent is here to have you grow deeper into the Easter mystery and to show you what you were saved from and for.